feste, folger shakespeare library, Folger Theatre, Louis Butelli, robert armin, Robert Richmond, shakespeare's great stage of fools, the fools of shakespeare, Twelfth night, will kemp, Will Sommers, wise fools in shakespeare
As I mentioned last time (click here), I’m in the process of using the Folger Library’s world-class collection of materials related to Shakespeare and the early modern era in the West to prepare for Twelfth Night. With some help from my Library Sherpa, Folger Circulation Specialist Alan Katz, I’ve been visiting the Library and gently dipping my toes into the river of information that runs through the building.
If you’re a Library lay-person, like myself, the sheer volume of material can be a little bit daunting. As such, Alan graciously took the time to hold my hand as I began. At his suggestion, we started with a “search theory” which, in this case, we’ve been referring to as “Finding Former Festes” – in other words, scouring the records for evidence of other actors who have played the role.
For my first visit, I checked my coat and bag in the cloakroom (no bags, pens, or sharp objects allowed inside), signed in with Eric Castillo, the friendly attendant in the antechamber – which I have come to think of as the “air lock” – and passed through the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room. There are so many things to say about this room, some of which I’ve already said here, but that’s for another entry.
I headed downstairs to the circulation desk where Alan was waiting for me. To avoid any kind of panic attack on my part, we decided to start small. We opened a web browser and called up HAMNET, the Folger’s complete online catalogue, (you can follow along at home, if you like!) and entered just one search term…the word “Feste.” This was enough to get us started. The search returned 86 results, inclusive of art works, music, and, of course, books.
Keeping things simple, we decided to start with just a few titles to get me going. Armed with call numbers – Folger is organized using the Library of Congress system – Alan took me down into the stacks where the “Modern” collection is housed.
We pulled three books:
“The Fools of Shakespeare” by Frederick Warde, McBride, Nast & Co., New York, 1913
“Wise Fools in Shakespeare” by Robert Hillis Goldsmith, Michigan State University Press, Michigan, 1955
“Shakespeare’s Great Stage of Fools” by Robert H. Bell, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011
As I suspected, these books did a phenomenal job of unpacking “Feste” the character, his relationship to the play itself, and the impact the Fools and clowns have on all of Shakespeare’s plays.
All three books hit on Feste’s scene with Viola in III,i of Twelfth Night, wherein the two discuss what it is to be a fool. Weird sidenote: Feste is only ever referred to by name once in the play, by Curio in II,iv. The rest of the time he is referred to as “Fool,” and in the stage directions, he is listed as “Clown.”
VIOLA: I warrant thou art a merry fellow and carest for nothing.
Clown: Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my
conscience, sir, I do not care for you: if that be
to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible.
VIOLA: Art not thou the Lady Olivia’s fool?
Clown: No, indeed, sir; the Lady Olivia has no folly: she
will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and
fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to
herrings; the husband’s the bigger: I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.
VIOLA: I saw thee late at the Count Orsino’s.
Clown: Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun,
it shines every where.
And then this from Viola, upon Feste’s exit:
VIOLA: This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man’s art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.
Great stuff in these books, all three of which I can recommend highly to fans and/or aficionados of Shakespeare’s comic characters. Still, in terms of “Finding Former Festes,” we were just a little bit out of luck…with one very notable exception.
All three books mentioned a gentleman called Robert Armin, who was a shareholder and company member in Shakespeare’s ensemble at the Globe. The late, great “melancholy” clowns – Touchstone, Lear’s Fool, and Feste, for example – were written for Armin to play. He’s long been a kind of pet obsession of mine, along with the great clown Will Kemp who Armin replaced. There’s lots I’d like to say about these guys…but that’s for another post.
Meanwhile, Alan and I returned to HAMNET and plugged in “Robert Armin,” and up came a virtual treasure trove. For the purposes of this entry, I’ll limit myself to just one book.
Armin himself was a writer, and we found a pretty excellent book, which is a compendium of his four major works:
“Occasional Issues of Unique and Very Rare Books,” A.B. Grosart, ed. Printed in 1880 by Charles E. Simms, Manchester, UK (62 copies only). Volume 14, “The Works of Robert Armin,” 1605-1609. Handwritten notes in text and margins by someone with the initials “BN.”
This was all pretty chilling. In addition to the works themselves, the volume contains reproductions of the original title pages, three of which originals are in the Folger collection, just waiting for me to come and take a look at the next time I’m in.
Armin’s four titles are…
Foole Upon Foole (a book of jests), Nest of Ninnies (the same book of jests with some new material, probably re-released to sell more copies), The Maids of More-clacke (a play), and The Italian Tailor and his Boy (a long verse poem).
I’ll just focus on two of these briefly to conclude the entry.
“The History of the Two Maids of More-Clacke – with the Life and Simple Maner of John in the Hospitall,” printed for Thomas Archer, London, 1609, for sale in his shop.
While this play does not contain Shakespeare’s genius, and is prone to no small number of ambiguities – some of which are related to sloppiness in the printing process, some of which are related to the mysterious and incomplete notation of character, and some of which are due to, shall we say, the lack of an editor – it is pretty fascinating to see what sort of play Armin wrote for himself to appear in.
It is theorized that Shakespeare wrote many of his characters with particular actors from his company in mind. In this way he could play to their strengths and unique skill sets. In a roundabout way, then, reading Maids of More-Clacke was a bit like reading a play written by Feste himself. As such, it is filled with a fair amount of chaos, mistaken identity, disguises, mismatched lovers, and idiocy – on the part of John in the Hospitall, a lunatic, played by Armin himself. There are long sequences, John’s particularly, that sucked me in and put a big smile on my face. Still, there were others that had me completely baffled. I look forward to returning for another read.
“Foole Upon Foole, or Six Sortes of Sottes,” printed for William Ferbrann, London, 1605. “Not so strange as true.”
This is a “book of jests,” or, a series of anecdotes about six Fools who were well known to Armin and his contemporaries. Armin was interested in the distinction between “natural fools,” people who we would probably classify as “mentally ill” in some way or another, and “artificial fools,” those who told jokes for a living, or were represented on stage. “Foole Upon Foole” has some of each. As Armin promises on the title page, the book tells tales of “a flat foole and a fatt foole, a leane foole and a cleane foole, a merry foole and a verrie foole.”
One of the fools Armin details in the text is a gentleman by the name of Will Sommers. Will was court jester to King Henry VIII and, it is said, was the only person who could make Harry laugh when he fell into one of his renowned fits of rage. I single him out for mention because, in a strange confluence of foolery, I played Will in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in 2010. Director Robert Richmond inserted Will into the story as a kind of guide, or “conduit” for the story. I absolutely loved playing him, and he holds a special place in my heart.
I’ll close the entry by quoting from a section wherein the King, being “melancholy,” calls for Will who asks him three questions. The first two failed to cheer the King, but the third seemed to do the trick. Here, then, is Robert Armin writing about the jests of Will Sommers:
Now tell me, sayes Will, if you can, what it is, that being borne without life, head, nose, lip, or eye, and yet runnes terribly roaring through ye world till it dies? This is a wonder qd the King, & no question, & I know it not. Why, quoth Will, it is a fart. At this the King laught hartily, & was exceeding merry and bids Will aske any reasonable thing, & he would grant it. Thanks, Harry, sayes he, now against I want, I know where to find, for yet I need nothing: but one day I shall: for every man sees his latter end, but knows not his beginning. The King understood his meaning, and so pleasantly departed for that season, and Will layes him downe amongst the Spaniels to sleep.
These words, written by the original Feste regarding one of his progenitors, help immeasurably in starting to envision the “Feste” that I’ll portray. He is brave in the face of supreme power, he is clever and crude, he is rewarded for his jesting, but prefers a life unencumbered and is most content to bed down with the dogs.
Alan and I were only able to find one “Former Feste” this time, but, I’d say, we found the best of the bunch.
OK. More Literary Spelunking to come. Until next time!